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Alberta government risks public buy-in on COVID-19 by withholding info: Opposition


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EDMONTON — Alberta’s Opposition says Premier Jason Kenney’s government needs to start showing its hand if it wants to ensure public buy-in on targeted COVID-19 health restrictions.

NDP health critic David Shepherd says the public is not getting the reasons and evidence behind the decisions to shut down some businesses but not others. 

“Jason Kenney is keeping Albertans in the dark,” Shepherd said Friday. “We don’t have an explanation for why they chose those particular businesses.

“If this premier won’t take it seriously (enough) that he’s willing to communicate openly and honestly with the people of Alberta, then we’re going to get what we have now, where we have, unfortunately, too low a level of compliance of even the most basic of things.”

COVID-19 cases have been rising alarmingly for weeks in Alberta. The caseload has overwhelmed contact tracing and strained the health-care system. 

On Thursday, Alberta set a sobering single-day record with 1,105 new cases. There were 284 people in hospital, 61 of them in intensive care. 

Because contact tracing can’t keep up, officials don’t know where 80 per cent of the 10,382 active infections were contracted.

Kenney announced tighter health restrictions a week ago that affect some parts of communities and the economy. Restaurants and retailers, schools and places of worship remain open with some restrictions.

Large gyms and recreation centres also remain open, but fitness studios and indoor organized team sports and group arts performances were shut down for two weeks in Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge, Red Deer, Fort McMurray and Grande Prairie.

Areas with high case concerns — including Edmonton, Calgary and surrounding areas – have a 15-person limit on public gatherings and a 50-person limit on weddings and funerals. Bars and restaurants that serve liquor must stop by 10 p.m. and close an hour later.

The province has delivered some rationale for the changes. Kenney has said few cases are coming from indoor dining, but he instituted the liquor deadline because some restaurants were flouting the rules and transforming into late-night, super-spreader party zones.

He has also said that household gatherings and get-togethers are responsible for 40 per cent of new cases. 

Some fitness studios stated this week they have gone above and beyond to keep COVID-19 free and they don’t understand why they are now being targeted.

The government says the ban on team sports was to avoid close contact among participants, but no similar ban was put in place for worship services. The province has asked faith-based gatherings to be limited to one-third capacity, but that remains voluntary. 

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, chief medical health officer, said Wednesday she was distressed to hear that some sports teams are moving outside the cities to keep playing and some fitness studios are skirting the rules by replacing live instructors with videos.

On Thursday, NDP critic Rod Loyola asked Health Minister Tyler Shandro for evidence underlying last week’s orders, suggesting they appear arbitrary and unfair.

 “These (fitness) club owners are not against public health orders, but they do not deserve to be closed just so that this premier appears to be taking COVID-19 seriously,” said Loyola.

“What evidence do you have for closing them over other businesses? How many cases were linked to these studios and how many cases will this order prevent?”

Shandro urged Loyola to check with Hinshaw as the fitness studio closure was on her recommendation: “There were three super-spreader events that happened in group fitness. That was the concern that Dr. Hinshaw had.”

Shepherd also renewed a call for the government to release updated modelling data on where COVID-19 is going in Alberta. The last modelling came out in the spring. 

He also renewed a call for Alberta to make masks mandatory in all public indoor spaces in areas with high case counts.  

The province has a patchwork of mask-wearing rules driven by municipalities and is the only one without a provincial directive.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 20, 2020.


Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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Calgary panda pair heading home to China after pandemic crimps zoo’s bamboo supplies

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CALGARY — The Calgary Zoo says two giant pandas are on their way home to China today.

The zoo said in May that it would be sending the pair back early because the COVID-19 pandemic was making it difficult to source bamboo.

The plant makes up 99 per cent of the animals’ diet and the zoo has said it was an expensive and all-consuming effort to cobble together supplies from across North America.

The zoo says on Twitter it was a difficult decision to send the pandas home three years earlier than planned.

It says it took months of hard work to secure international permits to get the pandas home.

The zoo posted photos of reams of paperwork needed for the journey, the crates that were to carry the pandas and the Lufthansa Cargo plane that was to take them to China.

The two adults, Er Shun and Da Mao, were on loan from China to Canadian zoos as part of a 10-year deal signed in 2012. They were to stay in Calgary until 2023.

Two cubs, Jia Panpan and Jia Yueyue, were born in Toronto in 2015. They were sent to China as planned in January.

The price tag to have the pandas in Calgary was around $30 million, including $14.4 million for the Panda Passage exhibit itself. Expanded parking lots, washrooms and restaurants were also required to accommodate an expected influx of visitors.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 27, 2020.

Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press

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Alberta adds 700 enforcers to stop COVID-19 rule-breakers as hospitalizations climb

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CALGARY — Alberta is giving 700 more peace officers the power to enforce COVID-19 restrictions as hospitalizations for the virus continue to climb in the province. 

“We are not asking these officers to stop cold their day-to-day priorities or to harass responsible Albertans going about their everyday lives,” Justice Minister Kaycee Madu said Friday, as Alberta reported 1,227 new COVID-19 cases and nine more deaths. 

Police officers and health inspectors also have the ability to enforce the rules. 

Federal data shows that as of Friday, Alberta had the highest seven-day infection rate in Canada with 209 cases per 100,000 people. 

Alberta has 405 COVID-19 patients in hospital, including 86 in intensive care. A week ago, there were 55 patients in intensive care with COVID-19. 

Postponing surgeries is one of the ways the province is freeing up space to accommodate more people severely ill with the virus. 

New measures came into effect Friday to help blunt the spike in cases. Private indoor social gatherings are banned, capacity limits have been imposed on stores and students between grades 7 and 12 switch to remote learning on Monday. 

Fines for breaking the rules range from $1,000 to $100,000 in extreme cases that make it to court. 

When asked whether there would be crackdowns on anti-mask rallies, Madu said police will make independent decisions. 

“But as minister of justice, my expectation is that those who are in violation of the measures that we have put in place would have to be held accountable.”

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said she is disappointed to hear about Alberta Health Services inspectors being verbally abused. 

“Nobody deserves that, least of all the people who are working to keep all of us safe,” she said. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 27, 2020. 

Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press

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november, 2020

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